To start with, my beloved Food Lover’s Companion does not have an entry for crackers. Shame on them. Crackers are so useful, so effective! Kid-friendly, easy to transport for the car or an outing, perfect on a snack plate with cheese and smoked salmon… you get the idea. Fortunately, they are covered by a couple of my cookbooks. My King Arthur Flour Cookbook, for example, features an excellent section on crackers including Basic Crackers, Buttermilk Crackers, Twice-Baked Crackers, and the intriguing Cheese Bites. The updated Fannie Farmer features a super basic “white” cracker and an oatmeal cracker. Infinite variations here!
Crackers are easy to make with a small assortment of ingredients that most of us always have on hand. Kids love to help make them. They are at their best when they look rustic (read, incompetently rolled out and shaped) and people are impressed at your farmwife skills, regardless of whether you are a man, woman, bachelor, workaholic, whatever. They store well and easily, but why would you need to store them? I made several batches of crackers these last couple of weeks and there is not a single one left in the house.
Before I launch into recipes and outcomes, bear in mind that I wasn’t able to test all the recipes that I wanted to. Some I will have to save for another day. Hopefully the ones I did choose represent a (relatively) wide variety of approaches. Let’s start.
Because I tend towards nutrient-dense cooking with an innate distrust of food trends that popped up during the 20th century, I frequently start my cooking with Nourishing Traditions. Sally Fallon goes a bit overboard in places but I enjoy her simple treatment of crackers:
- 2 1/2 cups freshly ground spelt, kamut, whole wheat or rye flour, or a mixture
- 1 c plain yogurt
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 T seseame seeds, toasted
- 8 T butter, melted (4 for dough, 4 for topping)
The flour and yogurt is mixed together and sits for 12-24 hours in a warm place. This begins a processing of the grains that is akin to a bread sponge, to what sourdough does, or to what lime does when added to cornmeal to make masa harina. I usually just set this up overnight and then sometime the next day I add the other ingredients, roll them out to the desired thickness, and bake. Fallon says to bake them at a super-low temperature overnight or to use a food dehydrator. I’ve baked them for a couple of hours at 200, and I’ve liked the results. But I’ve also rolled them super-thin and cooked them for 15-20 minutes at 300 and liked those as well. What I love most about these crackers is the slightly sour-tart taste imparted by the yogurt. It’s a nice flavor rather than bland or salty, the two standard cracker flavor profiles.
I’ve tried a couple of variations in the past including cocoa powder, crushed coriander and fennel seed, different combinations of flour. I even tried one with teff flour my husband brought home from Ethiopia, and I added too much baking powder as I was unsure of how heavy the flour would be. James and I cut them out using a shot glass and they made something reminiscent of oyster crackers, very good for soup.
The recipes I tried from Fannie Farmer and King Arthur were more traditional styles of cracker. No overnight setting-up, and I halved whole wheat and white flour rather than go all out crunchy-granola. First, I tried the Basic Cracker from King Arthur:
- 2 c flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp sugar
- 4 T butter
- 1 egg beaten into 1/2 c milk
Of course, I didn’t use sugar and added a teaspoon of maple syrup instead. But it’s a standard process, dry ingredients mixed together with butter rubbed in and liquid added last. Knead briefly, roll it and cut it and bake it at 400. Tasty enough but rather forgetful. So next, I tried King Arthur’s Cornmeal Cheddar Crackers:
- 1 c white flour
- 3/4 c cornmeal
- 1/4 c whole wheat flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- 1 c finely grated cheddar
- 1 egg
- 1/4 c oil
- 1/4 c water
I used olive oil which lent a nice flavor to the cheesyness of the dough. Similar process as above, dry ingredients first then grated cheese mixed in, then the liquid, then kneaded, rolled, cut, and baked at 375. I am sad to say that I overcooked these, as they had the nicest flavor and smell under the slightly burnt taste. I think these will become my special occasion cracker, but the addition of the cheese is a luxury that won’t be for everyday. Last I tried out the White Cracker recipe in Fannie Farmer:
- 2 c flour
- 1 T sugar
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 T butter, chilled
- 2/3 c milk
These were akin to a pie crust and were tasty – if I want basic crackers and I don’t have the chance to overnight the flour and yogurt this will be my go-to recipe. You know the drill, combine the dry ingredients, rub in the butter then barely blend in the milk. For these crackers, rolling the dough out to a less than 1/8 inch thickness is the final step before baking at 425 – they go into the oven in two large 13″*13″ pieces with the surface scored and are then broken into crackers after they’ve come out of the oven and cooled. Perhaps it’s my oven or my pan (er, pizza stone) but the edges began to darken long before the middle pieces were cooked. Next time I’ll cut them out before baking.
So what have I learned?
First, flavor is tricky – without an ingredient such as cheese it’s easy for crackers to become bland and flavorless. This is fine when the cracker is meant to be a vehicle for something rich or particularly assertive… but, no, there’s never an excuse for blandness. The pie crust-y crackers were good precisely for this reason – the flavor of the butter came through (use good butter!!!) and there was no need for the perfect amount of salt or the right combination of herbs. And this is why the Fallon recipe calling for yogurt appeals to me, the flavor is considerably upped with a bit of planning and minimal labor on my part. And, of course, I do believe they’re better for you:)
Second, the baking is tricky. I overcooked my lovely cheesy crackers, the pie crust crackers were all browned yet undercooked, and the last batch of Fallon crackers I tried where I rolled them super-thin and cooked at a higher temp also overcooked slightly (no need to state the obvious, I see the theme as well, but I will simply never be the kind of cook that can stand at the oven and wait patiently until the exactly right moment). For this reason Sally Fallon’s “leave ’em in the oven at 200 forever” approach is also appealing.
Last, it’s hard to make inedible crackers, so experiment away! My next attempts will include practically perfectly cooked cornmeal cheese crackers (parmesan instead of cheddar perhaps?), the oatmeal crackers from Fannie Farmer, and a Sally Fallon cracker with coconut oil instead of butter or olive oil. Good thing winter is a great time to bake!